Chasing the elusive but beautiful Snowy Owls

fromadistancebybrucestambaugh
The Snowy Owl as viewed from the lane north of Mt. Hope, OH.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Birding is one of my many hobbies. I’m not the best birder by any stretch of the imagination. But I consider it a compliment to be called a birder.

I’m not alone. Believe it or not, birding is one of the most popular sports in the world. Birding is an international activity that can be enjoyed by anyone, any age at anytime. All you need are birds and an awareness to see and hear what is flitting right around you.

Birders have long been interconnected. That’s because it’s equally fun witnessing the enthusiasm and excitement of others experiencing the same bird you got to see. Ask my wife. I’ve called her to the kitchen window many a time to view the beauty and antics of our backyard birds.

Today birders connect in many ways. Bird alerts via phone, texts, email and Internet posts keep avid and amateur birders alike apprized of any rarity that arrives. Organizations and clubs also promote birds and birding.

spottedtowheebybrucestambaugh
A Spotted Towhee recently spent several weeks at a feeder at an Amish home west of Holmesville , OH.
Over the years, we’ve had our fair share of rare birds appear in Ohio’s Amish Country. They get noticed here more than other places perhaps because we have so many good birders who live here. Many of them are young Amish folks.

We’ve had Wood Storks, Rufous Hummingbirds, Northern Wheatears, Spotted Towhees and Swallow-tailed Kites. The latest rarity influx has been Snowy Owls.

When my friend, Robert, called just before Christmas and asked if I wanted to see a Snowy Owl that was reported near Mt. Hope, I was elated. I stopped what I was doing, gathered my binoculars and cameras, and picked him up.

Snowy Owls normally winter in southern Canada. Once in a great while, the impressive white birds will wander farther south into Ohio and other states.

sunpillarbybrucestambaugh
The Thanksgiving Day sunrise produced a marvelous sun pillar.

Robert had also called about a Snowy Owl the day before Thanksgiving. It had been seen between Berlin and Walnut Creek. When we arrived at the location given for the bird, it was gone. We drove around scouting for it without success.

As soon as we arrived back home, Robert received another call that the Snowy Owl had returned to its original spot. It was close to dusk, and we both decided not to retrace our tracks, thinking we could see it the next day.

We were wrong. We were up early Thanksgiving morning. It was frigid, but a beautiful sunrise brightened the horizon with a spectacular sun pillar thrown in for good measure. But no Snowy Owl.

I wasn’t about to miss this latest opportunity. When we arrived at the reported location north of Mt. Hope, the Snowy Owl was right where it was supposed to be. The large white bird with gray speckles sat unconcerned in the middle of a corn stubble field. I took several pictures of the astonishing bird while Robert used my cell phone to call others to confirm the bird’s sighting.

snowyowlbybrucestambaugh
The Snowy Owl seen Dec. 23, 2013 near Mt. Hope, OH.
After soaking in the beautiful bird and quietly celebrating our success, we returned to our respective homes. I alerted other birders about the Snowy Owl. Half the fun in birding is sharing what is found.

Since November, several other Snowy Owls have appeared in more than half of Ohio’s 88 counties. Such an invasion of rare birds is called an irruption. People were reporting and photographing Snowy Owls all around Ohio, and even in other states, including Florida.

I’m glad Robert and I got a second chance at the Snowy Owl. I hope you get to see one, too.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Timing is everything, especially when birding

Courting Egrets by Bruce Stambaugh
I caught this pair of Great Egrets in their courting ritual at the Venice, FL Rookery. The Great Blue Heron to the left didn't seem too impressed.

By Bruce Stambaugh

The weather was dreary and cold, with occasional snow flurries. It was just another winter’s day in Holmes County, Ohio as far as I was concerned. But it turned out to be so much more than that.

I drove the nine miles east to check on my mother, who lives in a local nursing home. I kept my visit short as usual, making sure I had refilled Mom’s bowl of jellybeans before I said goodbye.

As I was driving home a flash of white caught my attention to the right just east of Berlin, center of the world’s largest Amish population. Besides the color, the bird’s large wings, small head and short tail were all instantly noticeable.

I checked traffic and slowed my vehicle. The bird’s rapid, steady flight cut directly across my path right to left, giving me a full, close view for nearly a minute.

By its distinctive wingbeats, its size and color, I reckoned it was a Snowy Owl. Given my situation, I had no other choice. I had to keep alert driving, yet I tried to keep my eyes on this rare bird.

Ospreys at Corolla NC by Bruce Stambaugh
While vacationing in Corolla, NC, I happened upon this pair of Ospreys building a nest on a rooftop.
I didn’t have either my binoculars or camera along. The only thing to do was to keep driving and hope that I could spot it again as I made my way west through town.

Snowy Owls recently had been reported all across the midwestern part of the country, including Ohio. This was far south of their normal winter range. Experts speculated that the owls came in search of food. Normally nocturnal, Snowy Owls will hunt in the daytime when stressed by hunger.

As I motored through two signal lights and the usual clog of traffic in the busy unincorporated village, I kept looking south. I spotted the bird off and on, and saw it gliding as if it was going to land southwest of town.

Once I reached the open area west of Berlin, I again found the white owl, this time flapping its large wings. As I headed down the hill colloquially dubbed Joe T. hill, I lost sight of this magnificent bird. I didn’t know if it had landed or flown out of sight.

My only option had been to observe every detail of the bird that I could while driving. In the birding world, that process is called reckoning, meaning noting the birds shape, size, flight pattern, and behavior.

To be sure of my sighting, I consulted several bird books when I got home. They confirmed what I had seen. I reported the sighting to the rare bird alert. That way others in the area might see the owl, too.

That’s the way birders are. Half the joy of watching birds is sharing what is seen with others.

Amish boys biking by Bruce Stambaugh
Young Amish boys like these young men often will bike miles to go birding.
Ohio’s Amish country is blessed with an abundance of excellent birders, many of them in their early teens. It is not uncommon for them to get a group together, and bike for miles to go birding for a day.

They keep track of what they see, species, numbers and locations. And if they happen to spot an unusual bird, the word gets spread quickly so others may enjoy the opportunity as well.

In this case, I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be at just the right place at just the right time to see a Snowy Owl. I considered myself extremely fortunate to have seen this rare bird.

When birding, like so many other situations in life, timing is everything.